out of Five
Running time: 106
Thought-provoking, powerfully emotional and intriguingly structured, this is a gripping documentary that offers a convincing and depressing critique of capital punishment in the US while somehow managing to find a glimmer of hope in what Herzog calls the urgency of life.
What's it all about?
Directed by Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is part of the director's Death Row project that includes this feature film and four shorter films, each focussing on a different death row inmate, that are currently being shown on Channel Four in a series entitled Death Row. The film is structured into six chapters, during which Herzog interviews various people connected with a horrific triple homicide that occurred eleven years ago in Conroe, Texas.
The subjects include: the perpetrators, boyish-looking Michael Perry (whose execution is scheduled for eight days after his interview) and older accomplice Jason Burkett (whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after a plea for clemency from his jailbird father Delbert, also interviewed); the victim's families; smalltown acquaintances of Perry and Burkett; the police detective and reporters involved in the case; the death row chaplain; a former captain of the Death House team; and finally sweet-natured Melyssa Burkett, who met and married Jason Burkett after his trial and has somehow managed to become pregnant by him, despite the fact that she's not allowed conjugal visits with her husband.
What emerges most strongly from the film (which Herzog never allows to become preachy, even while stating his own anti-capital punishment stance upfront) is a sense of the devastating consequences of violence, whether it's the heartbroken victims’ relatives, the senseless lives of the two young perpetrators, just teenagers when arrested (Herzog takes pains to point out that though their crimes were monstrous, the two men are not monsters but human beings), the still shell-shocked members of their community or the psychological toll that decades of state-sponsored murder has taken on former Death House captain Fred Allen.
At the same time, however, Herzog manages to find glimmers of hope and what he calls “the urgency of life” (persistence is perhaps more accurate) amongst the more depressing details, such as Melyssa's obvious joy in her pregnancy, Allen's experiences, an interviewee who turned his life around after he learned to read in prison and even the emotional chaplain's anecdote about nearly hitting two squirrels with his golf cart.
Herzog never appears on camera but his disarming and distinctive style is present throughout to engagingly idiosyncratic effect, for example, telling Perry that “Destiny has dealt you a bad deck of cards, which doesn't exonerate you and which does not mean I have to like you,” or interrupting the chaplain with the line “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel ...”
Impressively directed and superbly structured, Into the Abyss is a gripping documentary that's by turns thought-provoking and powerfully emotional. Highly recommended.
Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life (15)